Cattle producer Blake Hall isn’t about to sugar-coat things.
“People are so petrified of the word drought, but we’ve been using it for the last three weeks,” the Red Deer cattle producer said in a July 7 interview.
“We stopped seeing any significant regrowth in our pastures about five weeks ago. Now we’re in drought-management mode.”
But the young producer has three allies in the battle to save as much of his 220-head herd as possible — a pair of grass clippers, 30-inch-diameter wire ring, and small portable scale.
After clipping and weighing the amount of grass in the ring (placed on a representative spot in a pasture), Hall uses a conversion chart to calculate how much feed is available.
“If we only want to take 25 per cent of what’s there on a dry-matter basis, we need to give them X number of acres,” he said. “I can take my map and my measuring wheel and measure out to the foot so that they have that exact paddock size. It allows us to manage it much closer.”
And that — rather than “just eyeballing” it — has been a “game changer” this year, he said.
Sixty per cent of Hall’s pastures were in poor condition at the start of the month. That’s slightly above the provincial average of 55 per cent (as July 7), although not as bad as the area northwest of Edmonton where 81 per cent of pasture and hay land was rated as poor.
Managing what they have as best they can means Hall and wife Angela must constantly run the numbers.
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“We try to keep an inventory of the grass on the ranch,” he said. “In a drought, that’s been a really empowering thing because we know how many days of grass we have and we can make management decisions accordingly.”
It’s a numbers game — but having precise ones makes all the difference in these trying times, he said.
“If we know, as of today, we have 48 days of grass on the whole ranch, that’s empowering too, because we can destock now and use that 48 days of grass for fewer animals to get us through the end of the season and still get a decent price for our cattle,” he said.
“We could destock now, or we could supplement feed and pray for rain. We have options.”
That’s the position a lot of cattle ranchers are in right now, said grazing consultant Kelly Sidoryk.
“You’ve got to have a strategy for destocking,” said Sidoryk, who’s involved in her family’s custom grazing operation near Lloydminster.
“You’ve got to get out there and say, ‘OK, worst-case scenario, how many grazing days do we have left with this amount of animals? What about if we destocked?’”
At this point, producers need to be “replanning,” she said.
“It’s time to redo your financial plan for sure because it’s probably changed from when you did it in January,” said Sidoryk. “Figure out how many days you’ve got, crunch the numbers, and see if you should destock.”
Current high prices make that decision “a lot easier to take,” she added.
“Even though this just smacks so much of the previous drought of 2002, the value of the cattle is way higher than it was back then if you do destock,” she said. “Even people who are selling yearling cattle right now are doing OK.”
Having a precise grip on his feed situation has another benefit for Hall — it’s prompted him to radically change his normal grazing routine.
He practises intensive grazing — moving his electric fences at least once, and often several times, a day — but usually only allows his cattle to take a maximum of 25 per cent of the available forage on a first rotation on a pasture. That allows for a quick rebound in growth and also leaves lots of litter to slow evaporation.
But this summer, even though his pastures are stressed, he’s letting his cattle take 80 per cent of available forage — with the trade-off being a longer rotation.
“If we’re only taking 25 per cent, we’re leaving about a 30-day recovery period on our pastures, but because we’re not seeing the grass recovering that quickly, we’ve had to lengthen our recovery period,” he said.
“We’re slowing them down, we’re taking 80 per cent, we’re moving them every day. But by doing that, we’ve increased our recovery period to about 70 days.”
Those “severely grazed” pastures will recover nicely if there’s rain during that time. That, of course, is a gamble — but a precisely calculated one thanks to having an exact handle on his inventory of grass.
“It is a drought, and we have to make compromises,” said Hall. “If we do end up setting our pastures back a little bit, the first step is knowing that. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We’d sooner abuse our pastures than start feeding hay in July.”